Mountaineer Moments in Adversity Part Ten

Mountaineer Moments in Adversity
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As we break into our Fall Camp coverage of the West Virginia Mountaineers, we hit the end of our series highlighting Mountaineer Moments in Adversity. From covering two iterations of the Backyard Brawl to ending a long winless stretch against Penn State, we have covered a lot of ground. We finish by looking at the historic 2005 season and a critical moment marking the difference between another so-so year and the start of a three-season stretch when Mountaineer football captured national attention.

Mountaineer Moments in Adversity Part Ten

Mountaineers Trying to Hit the Next Gear

In 2005, we find the West Virginia Mountaineers trying to hit the next gear under Head Coach Rich Rodriguez. During his first four years, the Mountaineers only finished in the Top 25 one time, in 2002. In 2003 and 2004, West Virginia won eight games in both seasons. They found themselves in the midst of a three-game losing streak in bowl games. Indeed, the beginning of the Rodriguez era looked much like the end of the Don Nehlen era.

The big difference, however, was the face of the Big East. After the 2002 season, the Big East traded away Virginia Tech and Miami to the ACC and added Connecticut. Then, in 2005, the Big East lost Boston College and added Cincinnati, South Florida, and Louisville to bring itself back to eight college football members. West Virginia may have fared poorly in this early round of realignment. Strength of schedule certainly was not going to do them any favors.

Thus, the Mountaineers almost had to hit the ground running in 2005 in order to keep the program–indeed, the whole conference–nationally relevant. That was a lot of weight to ask a team to carry, but Rodriguez had a quarterback he liked (Adam Bednarik) and a five-star running back (Jason Gwaltney) to lean on.

The Mountaineers started out fast, riding out to a 4-0 record. That said, they struggled more than they should have to beat an average East Carolina team 20-15.

Mountaineers Fail First Test

After their too-close-for-comfort win over ECU, the Mountaineers would play host to former ACC rival Virginia Tech, then ranked third in the nation. The Hokies represented, at the time, the adversity West Virginia just faced, as the Hokies, who at one time hitched their wagon to the efforts by West Virginia to build a “Northeast” football conference, drove their way into the ACC, spurning their former conference mates in the process.

Given the weakened state of the Big East, the Mountaineers could have certainly benefited from an upset victory at home against the hated Hokies. Virginia Tech, however, stifled the Mountaineers in the first quarter, jumping out to a 10-0 lead on the strength of Marcus Vick‘s legs. The Mountaineers closed the gap to 17-14 midway through the second, but Vick hit Jeff King for a touchdown pass to build the lead back to ten going into the locker room.

West Virginia managed just three points in the second half. As a result, they fell to the Hokies 34-17. Gwaltney proved ineffective. Bednarik did, too. His freshman backup, Pat White, also struggled to move the ball against the Hokies. Four wins to one loss may not have looked bad on paper, but Mountaineer fans certainly felt dejected after that loss.

Mountaineers Find Themselves on the Ropes

After a win over Rutgers, the Mountaineers hosted their second top-25 team at home as Louisville rolled into town. The game also represented the two teams’ first game since 1993, and the first as conference mates.

The first half was all Louisville. Indeed, the Cardinals went into the locker room up 17-0. By this point, a large group of fans from the student body stayed outside to tailgate after halftime. Milan Puskar was notably emptier in the second half. West Virginia started strong in the third quarter, though, with Bednarik finding soon-to-be all-timer Steve Slaton for a touchdown. Louisville, however, answered late in the third quarter, and the teams entered the final frame was a commanding 24-7 lead in favor of the Cardinals.

West Virginia found itself on the ropes, down 17 with just a quarter left. This looked like the Hokies loss all over again. Even more fans left Milan Puskar.

Then, the Unthinkable

Mountaineers’ starter Bednarik suffered an injury with eleven minutes in the game. West Virginia still found itself down 17 points. Enter Pat White. White and Slaton led a touchdown drive capped by a 4-yard run by Slaton. After the Mountaineer defense held Louisville, freshman kicker Pat McAfee hit a 28-yard field goal. Now, West Virginia was in business. They were down just a single score with four-and-a-half minutes to go.

Then, with one minute left, Slaton hit pay dirt again, knotting the game at 24 with a minute to go. The game found itself in overtime, and, on cue, Milan Puskar’s vacant seats filled again. A hungry fan base cheered the team through a back-and-forth game that featured three overtime periods. In each overtime, Slaton found his way into the end zone. In the second, he did so on an impressive 23-yard run set up, in part, by the dual threat freshman signal caller, White.

In the third overtime, West Virginia converted for two points. On the other side, Louisville scored, but they were unable to convert for two. Like that, West Virginia did the impossible with two underrated and unheralded freshman recruits. They overcame a 17-point deficit and send the ranked Louisville Cardinals home. Slaton, by the way, accounted for all six of the teams’ touchdowns.

Thus, the final of our Mountaineer moments in adversity represented one of the biggest flips in school history. It also represented the beginning of an unmatched era of success in West Virginia football history, as White and Slaton would lead the team to its first of three-straight 11-win seasons. Certainly, no fan thought that possible going into the fourth quarter of that game. Rodriguez found lightning in a bottle that day, though.

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